The Lost Gemini Preview
Ferra ran along the dirt path winding through the woods, her bare feet seeming to glide over the ground. She hopped over the occasional log and fallen branch, her long legs flashing in the sunlight. The warm dirt felt wondrous on her soles, each whump, whump of her footfalls like rapid beats on a drum. A warm breeze blew through her long, straight hair, and it flowed freely behind her, as if having a mind of its own.
Something it, and its owner, had in common.
Her wild heart beat in a steady rhythm with her feet, two whump, whumps for every lub-dub. Her heart beating on the drum of her chest while her feet beat the World Drum.
It wasn’t long before the path began to slope downward, the forest opening up ahead. Ferra spotted the crystal blue waters of her favorite hot spring, its shore bordered by black rocks in the front, and gray boulders and a big old gnarled tree on the opposite side. She sped toward it, bursting out of the forest and bounding over the black rocks. They were hot and hard under her feet, each step threatening to burn her soles. But they couldn’t burn her, and she knew it. She was just too fast.
Without so much as a pause, Ferra leapt forward, right into the sparkling spring.
Her breath caught in her throat as she plunged into the water. It was so hot that it too threatened to burn her. She felt her feet touch the rocky floor of the spring, just before the water rose above her neck.
“Oo!” she blurted out, her body going rigid for a moment. But she knew that the water was not hot enough to really hurt her. She relaxed, feeling the heat soak into her body, and relishing it.
Then she took a step backward, feeling the rocky wall of the spring behind her, and leaned against it, closing her eyes.
Ferra smiled, enjoying the sunlight on her face. She knew she couldn’t stay out here for long. Despite her best efforts, her skin was terribly pale – as white as a ghost, her mother always said – and she didn’t want to get a sunburn. But she sure planned on getting as close to it as possible.
After a while, Ferra opened her eyes, looking down at herself, her chin dipping into the water as she did so. She was quite slender, a whip of a girl, really. Much more like Mom than Dad. He was a big man, her dad. The biggest man in the village.
But her mom had the biggest voice.
Ferra had a brown shirt on, and similar shorts. The material was light, even when wet, perfect for swimming. The dark color contrasted sharply with her long silver hair. Hair that went all the way down to her butt, and was straight as an arrow. She grabbed a lock of it, twirling it absently. It would still be a few more years before she’d be allowed to cut it. She was only ten after all, and girls weren’t allowed to cut their hair until they became women.
She heard footsteps behind her, and twisted around, lifting her gaze.
“Hey Ferra,” a tall, lanky boy greeted. It was Kosu, her best friend. He was dressed in similar clothes, but had normal hair. Long and black, like everyone else in the village.
Everyone but her.
“Hey Kosu,” she replied. “Coming in?”
“Well yeah,” he answered. And with that, he leapt into the water beside her.
“Hey!” Ferra complained, twisting away from the hot water threatening to splash her face. She glared at him, but it was no use. He’d gone all the way underwater…and stayed there for quite a while. Which was just as well, because it gave her anger time to dissipate, flowing out of her and into the water.
And then, just as it finished doing so, Kosu’s head popped above the surface. He grinned at her, brushing his hair back from his face.
“Still mad?” he inquired, knowing full well what the answer was. She crossed her arms over her chest, pretending to scowl at him. He just laughed, and she broke out into a big smile, splashing him playfully.
“Jerk,” she grumbled.
“Wimp,” he shot back. She gave him a withering look.
“Shrimp,” she retorted. For while they were the same age – born only three days apart – he was a bit shorter than her. In fact, she noted with grim satisfaction, he had to stand on his tippy-toes just to keep his chin above the water.
“You ready for the song tonight?” she asked. The Festival on the Mount was this evening, a celebration of another year without Mount Patronus erupting. It’d been four hundred and sixty-three years since the last one, a cataclysmic event that devastated the surrounding region for miles. Except of course for their village. Their ancestors always survived the eruptions, though they lived less than a mile from the crater, on the lower slopes of the mountain.
“Guess we’ll find out,” he answered.
“Yeah,” she agreed. They’d been practicing, of course. Having both turned ten, it was the first year they’d be allowed to sing with the rest of the village during the Festival. It was a great honor…and mildly terrifying. As the only kids who’d turned ten this year, the village elders would make them perform the first few verses in front of the whole village. So if they made a mistake, it would be a very public one.
Luckily Kosu was Ferra’s songmate. The one she always sang with. In her village, everyone could sing…and everyone grew up with a songmate. They’d learned to sing together, practiced every song together, and would do so for as long as they both lived.
“Wanna practice?” Kosu asked.
They both cleared their throats, then began the song, two voices becoming one.
Rest for a while,
Time goes on
But yours is slowing.
But Time goes on,
An eternity in every
Frozen in Time,
Your moment’s coming.
Will be with you again,
And give life
The air went utterly still as they sang, not a sound other than their voices spoiling the silence. Ferra looked down at the surface of the water as they sang, spotting ripples on its surface. Ripples that moved ever-so-slowly, like the droplets of water dripping from Kosu’s nose…and everything else around them.
And when the song ended, every went back to normal.
Ferra’s eyes widened, and she lifted her gaze to Kosu, breaking out into a grin and giving him a big hug. He grinned right back, looking as surprised as she was.
“It worked!” he exclaimed.
She pulled away, still grinning stupidly.
“Sure did,” she agreed.
“Guess we’re ready, huh?”
“Sure are,” she replied.
There were footsteps behind them, and Ferra turned, spotting a tall, slender woman coming down the path toward them. She had big brown eyes and short, spiky black hair, and wore a simple, form-fitting black dress. The clothing of a woman of their tribe…and a garment Ferra couldn’t wait to earn the right to wear.
“Hey Mom,” Ferra muttered, her shoulders slumping. Mom smirked.
“Hey love,” she greeted back. “Hi Kosu,” she added. “I knew I’d find you two here. Get out. Feasts don’t prepare themselves.”
“Aww,” Ferra complained.
“Now,” Mom ordered.
Ferra and Kosu did as they were told, leaving the spring to follow Mom back into the woods. They traveled across the winding path through the forest that covered the base of the mountain, their bare feet marching in unison. Mom set the rhythm, of course, and Ferra and Kosu followed. No one in the village wore shoes, although Ferra had heard of strange peoples that did. Her bare feet connected her with the earth, and anything that severed that sacred connection was forbidden.
Each step a beat on the World Drum, in a song that spanned eternity.
Onward they went over the narrow path, thick vines crawling up the trees on either side, crossing over the path to intertwine with each other overhead. Small yellow fruits grew on them, and Ferra plucked one as she passed, popping it in her mouth.
“Don’t spoil your dinner,” Mom warned.
“Mmm hmm,” Ferra mumbled, grabbing another. She bit into it, savoring its sweet, juicy deliciousness. She ate as she walked, plucking more of the fruits from the vine as they made their way back to the village. It wasn’t long before she was absolutely stuffed. Of course, she’d eaten the fruits all the way to the spring as well, but what Mom didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her.
At length they reached the village. Eighty-two small, simple wooden huts clustered among the trees, surrounding a much larger building: the Commons. Three stories tall, it was where everyone went when they weren’t outside or sleeping, the village’s shared home. Ferra ate there, learned there, and played there, as did all the other kids. Some people even slept there, on the third level anyway. Newlyweds who hadn’t built huts, and the very old or sick who couldn’t walk from the huts to the Commons.
“Come on,” Mom urged, leading them between the huts and reaching the Commons. She turned to Kosu then. “Go find your father,” she ordered. Kosu nodded, giving Ferra a nudge in the ribs with his elbow.
“Enjoy,” he teased.
Ferra glared at him, and he ran off before she could hit him back. He would be spending the rest of the afternoon with the men of the village, doing what they did best, other than hunt: cook, and set up the drum. The village Elders would play the drum during the Festival tonight, and the villagers’ bare feet would play the World Drum as they danced to the Elder’s beat.
Jerk, she thought, shaking her head. Kosu knew darn well that she’d much rather be doing what he was doing than what she would have to do.
“Inside,” Mom prompted. They stepped inside the Commons, entering into a single large room that was the first floor of the building. It was several hundred feet long and forty feet wide, big wooden logs acting as support columns for the ceiling sixteen feet above their heads. Half the village was there; the female half. Hundreds of people stood before long tables in the room, preparing food. Mom brought Ferra over to a table where girls were cutting and seasoning meat, and immediately got to work, sliding a cutting board in front of Ferra and herself.
And so they cut and seasoned. Each tuk of their knives on the cutting boards in perfect harmony, a steady rhythm that Ferra fell into with practiced ease.
“Hi Suni,” Mom greeted, smiling at a young woman standing across the table from them. Suni glanced up at her, giving a little half-smile, then returning to her work. She was short and thin, and terribly quiet. It hadn’t always been that way; she’d been happy and carefree once…before the outsiders. Men in gold and red armor had ambushed the village a few months ago. While they’d been driven off by her village’s songs, the outsiders had kidnapped a few of the men and women, dragging them away.
A few weeks later, the village had sent warriors to save Suni and the others…but only Suni had survived.
Ferra stole glances at Suni, studying the dark circles under her eyes. She’d lost weight, and cut and seasoned the meat slowly, slipping with the knife on occasion…and failing to keep rhythm with the others. And she used far too little seasoning…seasoning that she herself had been in charge of making for the last week. The woman was clearly elsewhere in her mind; to be out of rhythm was to be disconnected, and since she’d returned, that’s what Suni had become.
Not for the first time, Ferra wondered the outsiders had done to the poor woman.
She felt a hand on her shoulder, and glanced to the side, seeing her mother glance significantly at Suni, then give a reassuring smile. Ferra smiled back, then focused on her work.
She cut and seasoned with the other women for almost an hour, until Ferra’s hands were stinging and cramping from using the knife for so long.
When the work was done at last, everyone lugged the food out to the men, who were in the Green, a flat, grassy field in the center of the village. It was the official gathering place, with dozens of small firepits forming a large circle around a much larger firepit, where the great flame of the bonfire would be blazing after sunset. The smaller firepits already alight, with the men and boys of the village ready to cook. Ferra helped bring the food to them, then followed Mom back into the Commons to clean up.
By the time they were done, the sun had touched the horizon, stars peeking out from their perch in the darkness of the coming night. The whole village went outside, some people sitting in a loose circle on the Green, others standing around the Commons holding plates of food and talking to each other while they ate. The tables Ferra had seen in the Commons earlier had been moved outside, and were overflowing with fruits, vegetables, meats, breads, and so on. It all looked delicious – and Ferra had no doubt that it was – but after having gorged herself on fruit earlier that day, she wasn’t very hungry. She leaned against a tree just outside of the Green, watching as the men lit the firepits and the great bonfire.
“Should’ve listened to your mom,” Kosu teased, walking up to her and offering her his plate. She rolled her eyes, but grabbed a piece of meat and stuck it in her mouth, making a show of chewing it. It was not great; Suni had been in charge of making the seasonings for the Festival, and had clearly not had her heart in it. Bella spit it out as politely as she could.
“Gonna be a while before we sing,” she grumbled. She was eager to get it over with.
“Relax,” Kosu chastised. “You’ll do fine.”
“I know, but I just want it to be behind us.”
Kosu nodded. They both stared into the bonfire in the center of the Green, hypnotized by the tall flames. People around them talked and ate, everyone seeming to have a good time. Everyone, that is, except Ferra. She was still nervous about the upcoming song. She found herself glancing back at the Commons.
“What’s up?” Kosu asked, his cheeks stuffed with food.
“Um, gotta go pee,” she answered. Which was true. He made a face.
“Ew. Yeah, didn’t need to know that.”
She flashed him a sickly-sweet smile, then made her way to the Commons, walking inside. The main room on the first floor was empty, the floor already swept clean of bits of food. Walking to the stairwell leading to the second floor, she found the bathrooms there. She did her business, then went back downstairs, making her way to the exit and walking back outside. Kosu was still there by the tree wolfing down food, and she went up to him.
“You’re eating that like it’s going to run away from you,” she noted.
“Mmmph, starving,” he explained between bites. “Mom didn’t let me eat all day.”
“Me neither,” Ferra admitted.
“Then why aren’t you eating?” a voice asked from behind. Ferra turned, seeing her mom – and dad – standing behind them. Unlike her, both carried plates heaping with food.
“Uh…” Ferra mumbled.
“Told you not to eat all that fruit,” Mom chided, elbowing Dad. And though he stood head-and-shoulders above Mom, and was over a hundred pounds heavier, he caved to her unspoken demand.
“Listen to your mother,” he piped in, tossing a hunk of meat into his mouth.
“After the song,” Ferra promised. Neither Mom or Dad fought this compromise, and they all stood around to people-watch. The circle of villagers around the bonfire was growing as people finished their food and sat down. Soon the Elders would stand, and they would call for those newly of age to begin the song. And that, of course, meant Ferra and Kosu. Sure enough, she spotted the Elders – two women and one man – arrive, hobbling their way toward the circle. When the villagers spotted the Elders, they became to stomp their feet as one.
Ferra joined them, pounding her bare feet on the ground.
The sound of their feet on the World Drum sent chills down Ferra’s spine. It was the heartbeat of the earth, from which all hearts came.
The Elders drew closer, making their way toward the center of the Green. Toward the great drum resting there, waiting for them. Ferra felt her heart thumping in her chest, each beat matching the beat of the World Drum.
She felt another chill, and an opening of her soul. Her fear vanished, banished by the beat of the World Drum. By her heart and the hearts of her people beating as one.
The Elders passed by Ferra and Kosu…and then the male Elder stumbled, then fell.
The village gasped, the beat of the World Drum cut short.
Dad rushed to catch the Elder, but he was too late. The elder landed on his side on the grass with a loud crack.
He screamed, clutching at his hip.
“Oh!” Ferra blurted out, kneeling at his side. Dad joined her, his expression grave.
“His hip,” he exclaimed. “It’s broken. Pick him up,” he ordered, waving down one of the men standing nearby, but facing away.
The man ignored them.
“Hey,” Dad pressed…and the man fell forward, landing flat on his face. Dad jumped up…
…and then Mom toppled over, landing with a thump beside Ferra.
“Mom!” Ferra cried. But Mom said nothing, lying on the grass on her side and staring outward at nothing. “Mom?” Ferra pressed, shaking her shoulder. Still nothing.
Ferra turned to Dad…and watched him crumple.
Then everyone did.
Villager after villager went to the ground, some lowering themselves, others falling over where they sat or stood. Everyone in the circle. Everyone standing nearby. Everyone except for Ferra…and Kosu, who was staring wide-eyed at the people littering the village green. His plate slipped out of his hands, the remainder of his food spilling on the grass.
“Kosu?” Ferra blurted out.
But Kosu didn’t respond. His eyes went glassy, and then he fell to the ground, unconscious.
Ferra went to his side, shaking him as hard as she could. But he just lay there like everyone else. She put her hand to her mouth and began to cry.
And then she heard a creaking sound from behind.
Ferra turned, spotting the door of the Commons opening, and a woman stepping out of it. It was Suni. She strolled casually across the grass toward the Green, her gaze sweeping over the bodies of the villagers. Then she spotted Ferra.
“Suni!” Ferra cried, jumping to her feet and running up to the woman. “Something bad happened. Everyone…”
Suni shoved Ferra backward, and Ferra stumbled, falling onto her butt on the grass. Suni glared down at her.
“Don’t touch me,” she growled. Ferra just stared blankly at her.
And then Suni changed.
Her body grew, her legs thickening, her torso lengthening. Her arms became more muscular, and her hair shortened. Even her face changed…until it wasn’t Suni’s face anymore. Or even a woman’s face. For a man stood before Ferra now, a man with short brown hair and cruel-looking blue eyes. He had a short beard, and even his clothes had changed.
Now he wore a uniform of gold and red.
Ferra’s eyes widened.
“You’re an outsider!”
Suni – or the man who’d been Suni moments before – ignored Ferra, retrieving a horn that was strapped around his waist. He blew into it, its deep sound carrying far into the forest around them.
“What did you do?” Ferra demanded, crawling backward away from the man. He pulled a knife from his pocket, walking up to one of the women lying on her belly on the ground and kneeling before them. “What…” she began.
The man grabbed the woman’s hair, yanking her head backward and bringing the edge of his knife to her throat.
“Wait, no!” Ferra cried.
And then watched in horror as the woman just lay there, not so much as flinching as the man drew the knife across the front of her neck. The skin there gaped open, blood spurting from the villager’s throat.
The man stood then, striding toward Ferra.
Ferra scrambled to her feet, backing away from him quickly. But instead of continuing after her, the man slowed, looking past her.
“Took you long enough,” he grumbled.
Ferra continued to back up…and felt herself bump up against something behind her. She whirled around…and saw another man standing there. An older man with long gray hair and tanned, wrinkled skin wearing a golden shirt with a red cape. He nodded at the first man.
“Looks like it worked,” he observed. “Nice to see you didn’t screw things up this time.”
“Lord Merkel,” the first man greeted, giving a little bow. “Dumb savages gobbled up that poison like it was the tastiest thing they’d ever had.”
“Well they’d have to be dumb to eat your cooking, Gimmel,” Lord Merkel replied with a little smirk. More men in the same metal armor appeared amongst the trees, dozens of them, all walking toward the villagers on the green. “I’d wager these savages never saw an Actor before.”
“Nope. All Musicians,” Gimmel – the man who’d looked like Suni moments before – said. Lord Merkel raised an eyebrow.
“Singers,” Gimmel clarified. Lord Merkel’s expression soured.
“Well isn’t that a shame,” he replied. “They won’t be much use to use then.” He gave Gimmel an approving look. “A good plan, to have them rescue their poor little…what was her name?”
“Ah yes,” Lord Merkel said. “All the while never realizing they were ‘rescuing’ you. You Actors are so devious.”
“No more so than the aristocracy,” Gimmel retorted with a smirk. Lord Merkel chuckled.
“Oh we’re far better at it,” he mused. “Centuries of practice you know.” He sighed looking around at the dozens of men standing around the village green. “Go on,” he ordered with a dismissive wave of his hand. “They’re singers. Silence them.”
The men got to work, kneeling before each villager and slitting their throats. Or stabbing them through the chest. Or belly. One-by-one, they murdered the helpless villagers.
And all Ferra could do was stand there, watching them do it.
Her legs buckled, and she fell to her butt on the grass between the two men, watching as her village was slaughtered. She felt numb, as if it were all a dream. As if it wasn’t really happening.
It couldn’t be happening.
“How was it playing a woman?” Lord Merkel inquired with a little smirk. “Did you have to…?”
“She was a widow,” Gimmel grumbled. Lord Merkel’s smirk widened.
“Uh huh. Right.”
Gimmel ignored the man, turning to face the tree where Mom, Dad, and Kosu were sprawled near. He walked up to Dad, kneeling before him…and grabbing the long black hair at the back of his head.
Something inside Ferra snapped.
“No!” she cried, rising to her feet and bolting toward Gimmel. But Lord Merkel grabbed her from behind, hauling her backward.
“She’s a feisty one, eh?” he commented. Ferra struggled against his grip, thrashing wildly. But it was no use.
Gimmel smirked at her, then yanked Dad’s head back, bringing his knife to Dad’s throat.
But Gimmel didn’t stop. He slid the blade across Dad’s neck, and blood sprayed from the gash, pumping into the grass below.
Gimmel let go of Dad’s hair, standing up, then stepping to Mom’s side. He knelt down, grabbing Mom’s beautiful black hair and forcing her head back. His knife gleamed in the sunlight as he brought it to Mom’s throat, still coated in Dad’s blood. Ferra’s eyes were wide, her breath coming in short gasps.
And then she did the only thing she could think of.
Rest for a while,
Time goes on
But yours is slowing.
Gimmel’s blade slowed, seeming to stop at Mom’s throat.
But Time goes on,
An eternity in every
But as Ferra watched, the blade continued – ever-so-slowly – biting into Mom’s flesh. It sank in, blood welling up at the knife’s edge as it violated her body.
Frozen in Time,
Your moment’s coming.
Still the blade moved, drawing across Mom’s throat. Crimson blood released from the wound in an awful jet, Mom’s life spilling from her. Ferra’s voice faltered, but still she sang, pouring her heart into each word.
Will be with you again,
And give life
Fingers closed around Ferra’s throat, cutting off the final word…and time – cruel time – resumed its awful course.
Gimmel finished slitting Mom’s throat, letting her head fall face-first back into the grass. Then he turned to Kosu, kneeling before Bella’s songmate. Kosu was lying on his side, and Gimmel rolled the boy onto his belly, grabbing his hair and pulling his head back like he’d done to the others.
Ferra gasped, clutching at the hand around her throat, desperately trying to pry them free. But Lord Merkel’s grip was like stone. She struggled to sing, to force the words out.
But no song came.
And as she watched, Kosu joined Mom and Dad, his voice silenced forever.
She went limp, struggling no more.
Lord Merkel tossed her onto her back on the grass, and Gimmel strode toward her, his boots thumping with each step. He stood over her, his blade dripping with blood.
“Get on your belly,” he ordered.
Ferra grit her teeth, her hands balling into fists. She glared at him defiantly.
“No,” she shot back.
“Fine kid,” he grumbled. “We’ll do it the hard way.”
“Stop,” Lord Merkel ordered.
Gimmel frowned, turning to the older man. Merkel eyed Ferra for a long, silent moment, then inclined his head at Gimmel.
“Get her on her feet,” he ordered. “Cover her mouth.”
Gimmel obeyed, hauling Ferra to her feet and putting one sweaty, blood-soaked hand over her lips. So she opened her mouth and bit him as hard as she could.
“Ow!” he cried out, jerking his hand back. He brought his blade to her throat.
“Stop!” Lord Merkel snapped, glaring at Gimmel. “You cut her throat and I’ll cut yours.”
Lord Merkel stepped forward until his face was mere inches from Ferra’s. He had the gall to smile.
“Well well,” he murmured. “Aren’t you a fiery little one.”
He grabbed a lock of her silver hair, running his fingers through it, then bringing it to his nose to smell it.
“Such unusual hair,” he mused. “And look at her eyes. Have you ever seen a girl like this? Completely natural?”
“No Lord Merkel,” Gimmon answered.
“She’s beautiful, isn’t she?” Merkel stated, letting go of her hair. He smiled at her, his eyes twinkling as they dropped to her neck, then her chest. Then her legs. “I think I’ll keep her.”
“Tie her up,” Lord Merkel ordered. “Cover that naughty little mouth too. I’m bringing her back to the Pentad.”
Lord Merkel smiled again, reaching out to grab Miss Savage’s chin. She turned her head away defiantly.
“Oh, you’ll be a bit of fun, won’t you?” he murmured, stroking her cheek with the back of his hand. “My little savage.”
The white castle of Havenwood stood atop Dragon’s Peak, a tall, stately mountain that corkscrewed up from a great mushroom forest. Mushrooms as tall as any tree, with long, pale white stalks and great big colorful caps. Encircling this rather odd forest was the largest dragon that had ever lived; indeed, perhaps the largest living being that had ever existed.
The White Dragon of Havenwood.
No being, nor even army, had ever defeated this magnificent creature, though several had tried. Legion, a nightmarish creature composed of thousands of painted soldiers, had failed to kill the White Dragon, though it had managed to wound it. Remarkably, a mere week of rest had restored the White Dragon to full health.
The rest of Havenwood, however, had not been so quick to recover from Legion’s attack, even though a full month had passed since that terrible day. Downtown Havenwood, a cluster of buildings near the base of the mountain, had been badly burned, and an entire wing of Castle Havenwood had collapsed. An army of dragon-like creatures called the Dragonkin had agreed to help repair the city, working day and night to do so. All for the Creator, the man who had given them life.
A man who lived not on the mountain, but inside of it.
For, near the top of Dragon’s Peak was the mouth of a cave, carved into the likeness of a water dragon. And if one were to travel inside of it, they would find themselves descending through a long, spiraling tunnel. A tunnel leading through the body of the ancient skeleton of a two-headed dragon, to its tail. And at the end of this, they would discover a huge underground chamber lit by the pale, ghostly light of innumerable small mushrooms.
And within this chamber, a dark mansion, home to the Creator himself, one Thaddeus Birch.
Or as Bella liked to call him, Grandpa.
For most of her sixteen years, Grandpa had been Bella’s universe. Her one true friend in a seemingly cold and uncaring world. Bella’s mother had been murdered ten years ago, after all…and she hadn’t even known who her father was until a couple of months ago. It was within Mom’s mansion that she found herself living now, with Grandpa and her father. A mansion with more rooms than she could count, many of them filled with Mom’s paintings.
And in the wee hours of the morning, while everyone else was still asleep, Bella found herself exploring room after room of her mother’s home, studying those paintings.
They told a story of the macabre, of things dark and bizarre. Paintings of death and dying, disease and rot. Undead monstrosities, vermin and filth. Zombies and ghosts and ghouls, skeletons and disembodied limbs. Of terrible things most people shied away from, or pretended didn’t exist at all.
But the way Mom had painted them, they seemed somehow noble, and rather beautiful.
Bella went from room to room, devouring the paintings with her eyes, as if doing so would give her some clue as to who her mother was. For she had no memory of her mother…only Grandpa’s stories.
They were never enough.
Hours passed, until Bella heard a soft chiming from the grandfather clock in the living room. It was seven o’clock…and her world was about to awaken.
Bella went to her small studio on the second floor of the mansion, stopping before a large canvas set upon its wooden easel. She hummed a cheery tune as she dipped the fine point of her paintbrush into a glob of yellow paint on the palette in her left hand. Then she used it to add a splash of sunlight to an onion in her painting, and to the wheel of cheese next to it. She smiled, her hips swaying side-to-side as she hummed a little tune, studying her work.
A painting of a large dining table, an abundance of food atop it. The freshest of onions, a few cloves of garlic, the wheel of cheese, and some cracked black pepper, and a bowl full of fresh eggs. A feast that made her mouth water just to look at.
She continued to paint, added little details here and there. Seemingly at a whim, without much thought at all. Each brushstroke seemed to flow like the music she hummed, entirely spontaneous and free. And each brushstroke felt right…although why that was, Bella wouldn’t have been able to say.
After adding a fresh glass of orange juice to the table, she stood back from the painting, struck with the feeling that it was done. Again, there was no thought involved, only intuition. But hundreds of paintings had taught her to trust that intuition…and not the conscious part of her brain that she normally used. For she had learned that the conscious brain could rarely be trusted…at least when it came to art.
A fact that irked her, given that even after a month in Havenwood, her intuition told her she didn’t belong there, even though her conscious brain insisted she shouldn’t feel that way. For while she enjoyed the warmth and cheer of the magic kingdom in small doses, she inevitably found herself pining for the darkness – literally and figuratively – of her mother’s mansion if she stayed aboveground too long.
Bella tapped her chin with the handle of her brush, then nodded to herself. Dipping her brush into some white paint on her palette, she leaned forward, signing her name to the bottom left of the canvas:
Bella M. Birch.
Though there were no windows in her studio, a gentle breeze ruffled her curly brown hair from behind.
Bella grabbed the canvas then, lifting it carefully from the easel, making sure to grab it from the sides and back, and not by the painted side. She left her little studio then, carrying the painting across a narrow hallway, then downstairs to the first floor of her home. She made her way to a medium-sized kitchen, setting the canvas on an easel in the corner of the room.
Then she grabbed a pan, setting it on the stove and turning on the burner. She went back to the painting, reaching one hand toward it. Her fingertips touched the canvas…
…and then plunged into it.
Bella felt a warm, pulsing sensation as her hand went through the painting’s surface, and watched as her fingers – now appearing as if they were part of the painting itself – closed around an egg. Then she pulled it out of the canvas.
After which it appeared entirely real, indistinguishable from any other egg.
She went back to the stove, cracking the egg into the pan, then repeated this with the rest of the eggs in the painting. They sizzled merrily, and Bella returned to the painting, pulling out an onion. This she set on the cutting board already on the kitchen counter, and got to work peeling and dicing it. Her eyes immediately began to sting, tears dripping down her cheeks.
“Gaaah,” she blurted out, squeezing one eye shut to minimize the damage. She forged on, braving the pain for the greater good.
“Ah, good morning sweetheart,” a deep voice called out from behind. Bella felt hands squeeze her shoulders from behind, and she turned her head.
“Hey Grandpa,” she greeted.
Grandpa must’ve just woken up, seeing as he was still wearing his comfy silk pajamas. He was old and stooped, his chocolate-brown skin riddled with wrinkles. His warm brown eyes were still bright and lively, however, peering at her over his gold-rimmed glasses. He hardly seemed the kind of man who would be so revered by an entire race of beings.
She turned from her work, giving him a kiss on the cheek.
“Oof,” he blurted out, blinking rapidly and taking a step back from her. “That onion is fresh.”
“See how I suffer for you?” she told him. He smiled, but backed further away, until he was well clear of the onion’s sphere of influence.
“I’ll leave you to it,” he replied.
Grandpa left the kitchen, no doubt to go upstairs to his office…and his writing desk. That was his favorite spot, where he would sit for most of the day, bent over a stack of papers, pen in hand. But anyone who assumed that he was meek and powerless would be sorely mistaken. For he was a Writer, able to create worlds and even living beings with a stroke of his pen.
But to Bella, he was just Grandpa…and that was more than enough.
Bella smiled, returning to her work. She hardly minded suffering for Grandpa. He’d suffered for nearly a decade for her, after all. Holing himself up in a dingy apartment, never daring to go outside for fear of the bounty hunters tracking them down. Grandpa had kept Bella blissfully unaware of the danger, an act of love that she could never repay.
Besides, she loved Grandpa – more than anything in the world – and nurturing him was one of the great joys of her life.
Bella finished dicing the onions, putting them in the pan with the eggs. Then she cut up some fresh garlic – also from the painting – and the cheese, adding it to the cooking eggs. It wasn’t long before the sweet smell of caramelized onions filled the kitchen…and summoned Grandpa once again.
He stood in the kitchen behind Bella, eyeing the pan and rubbing his hands together eagerly. When the eggs were done, Bella got to work setting the table.
“Need help?” Grandpa asked. Bella shooed him away, grabbing a pitcher of juice from the painting and putting it on the kitchen table in the next room. He resigned himself to easing down on one of the dining room chairs, waiting impatiently for Bella to finish.
“Did you spend the early morning with your mother again?” Grandpa inquired. Bella gave a rueful smile as she worked.
“With her paintings,” she confirmed.
“Her paintings are her,” Grandpa corrected gently. “As yours are you.” He smiled warmly. “Art is immortality, Bella. A way to make our stories live on long after we pass away!”
“If you say so Grandpa.”
“I do,” he replied. He paused, eyeing her with a rather mysterious look. “Did you find what you were looking for?”
“I don’t know,” Bella confessed. “I’m not sure what I’m looking for.” She sighed. “I just want to know her, you know?”
“You can’t,” Grandpa replied. Bella stopped what she was doing, putting her hands on her hips and frowning at him.
“What do you mean?” she demanded.
“You’ll never know her,” Grandpa explained. “But you can know you. That,” he added rather dramatically, “…is what art is for.”
“Seeing yourself in others is the closest you’ll get to knowing them,” Grandpa continued, spreading his arms out wide. “And that’s the best we can do.”
A second man entered the kitchen then. He was shorter than Bella, and looked to be in his mid-fifties. He had a short salt-and-pepper beard and a finely groomed mustache that was as close to a handlebar mustache as one could get without actually being one. His hair was stark white, short at the sides and long and swept back on top. Fierce eyebrows arched over eyes that were a striking shade of green.
And, as always, he wore a Painter’s uniform – a dark brown leather shirt and pants with painted canvas on his chest and belly, and encircling his arms and legs like bracers.
“Good morning Bella,” he greeted.
“Morning Gideon,” she replied. “Uh, I mean Dad,” she added. He gave a rueful smile.
“Still awkward, eh?”
“Little bit,” Bella admitted. She’d been trying to call him Dad more often, but it still felt weird. More often than not, she called him by his name. Gideon Myles, an extraordinarily gifted Painter…the father she hadn’t realized she’d had until a few months ago, shortly after her sixteenth birthday.
Gideon glanced at the painting on the easel, arching an eyebrow.
“You painted breakfast?” he inquired.
“I wanted to give it a try,” she replied.
“So do I,” Grandpa called out from the kitchen. She heard the rhythmic banging of a fork and knife on the table, and couldn’t help but smile at the dramatic protest.
“Coming,” she promised.
Gideon followed her as she went into the dining room, giving each of them their meals. She sat with them, and they all chowed down.
“Mmm,” Grandpa exclaimed.
“It’s good,” Gideon declared.
And that it most certainly was. They all fell silent then, the only sound the smacking of lips and slurping of juice. Within moments – far less time than it’d taken to prepare the breakfast – it was gone.
Everyone eased back in their chairs then, and Grandpa rubbed his bulging belly contentedly.
“Now that’s the stuff,” he remarked. He turned to Gideon then. “How are the repairs going?” he asked.
Grandpa, like Bella, didn’t get out much. A bad habit they’d both gotten into after being virtual prisoners in their apartment in the city they used to live in. On the contrary, Gideon was almost never home, preferring to travel about the city, and occasionally outside of it. He far preferred the light to the dark, it seemed.
“Almost done,” Gideon answered. “The Dragonkin are exceptional workers.”
“They did build the original,” Grandpa pointed out. “In my book, anyway,” he added.
“But still no sign of Simon or Miss Savage?” Bella asked. Gideon shook his head. The two had fled Castle Under as it had collapsed under the power of Miss Savage’s terrible song, flying to the Underground. Despite the best efforts of the Dragonkin, the two had still not been found.
“The Collector gave Simon his suit and his sword,” Gideon stated grimly. “They’re incredibly powerful…some of the most powerful items I’ve ever painted.”
“Honestly, I’m more worried about this ‘Miss Savage’ character,” Grandpa admitted. “In all my years, I’ve never met a Musician with the ability to alter time itself.”
“Or who could take down a castle single-handedly,” Gideon agreed. “Normally it would take an entire orchestra to do that.”
“Maybe we’ll never see them again,” Bella offered. “The Collector’s army was defeated, after all. And they don’t have his collection of paintings.”
“True, but they have something far more concerning,” Grandpa countered.
“A story,” he revealed. When Bella gave him a blank look, he sighed. “People think in stories, Bella. And the story Simon believes is that of a beloved father figure murdered…and there is only one likely way for that story to play out.”
“Revenge,” Gideon murmured.
“Indeed,” Grandpa agreed. “The great Quest for Vengeance. The Victim becoming the Hero,” he added, clearly capitalizing each word. Bella gave him a look.
“A hero?” she retorted. “Simon’s no hero.”
“Everyone is the hero or victim of their own story,” Grandpa countered gently. “Very few ever consider that they might be the villain…though we’re often the villain of someone else’s story.” He turned to Gideon. “In any case, I daresay Simon has the motive – and the tools, as a Painter – to become a dangerous adversary.”
“So what do we do?” Bella inquired. Grandpa polished off the last morsels of his meal, then stood up suddenly, slapping his palms on the tabletop.
“The only thing we can do,” he answered. “We prepare.”
* * *
For Bella, preparing meant painting.
She returned to her studio after breakfast, standing before a fresh canvas propped on a large wooden easel, pencil in hand. She tapped its eraser against her chin, eyeing the vast emptiness of the canvas. When she’d first started learning to paint, that blankness had been terribly intimidating, mocking her attempts to fill it. But after rigorous daily training, now it represented opportunity. Limitless potential.
A space waiting to be filled with wondrous things.
She spotted a hint of green in the corner of the room, and turned to see a huge glob of green, translucent goo there. It was so large that it reached the ceiling, a good ten times bigger than it’d been when she’d first painted it. Or rather, him; for it was Goo, the first painting she’d ever brought to life.
“Hey Goo,” she greeted. Its surface quivered in response. Possessed of the ability to drain negative emotions from anything trapped within, Goo was a formidable ally. He allowed her to deal with enemies without having to kill them…and their negative emotions only made him grow bigger and stronger.
She was about to turn back to the canvas when she spotted something suspended within Goo’s gelatinous body. A few fragments of what appeared to be shattered porcelain. Remnants of the Doppelganger, Simon’s Familiar. A strange, marionette-like creature that was a spitting image of Simon himself. It had the ability to shatter, then reform itself almost instantly…a power it had used to escape Goo’s grasp. But a few pieces had been left behind.
Suddenly, Bella was struck by an idea.
She turned back to the canvas, using her pencil to sketch an orange-sized circle. Then she drew a table below it, making the circle float above it. Glancing back at Goo, she studied the porcelain fragments for a moment longer, then erased the circle, making it a bit bigger.
Then she began mixing her paints.
An hour passed, then a second, and by the time Bella stepped back from her painting, she heard a knock on her door.
“Come in,” she called out.
The door opened, and Gideon came into the studio. His eyes immediately went to the painting.
“What’s this?” he inquired.
The painting was of a translucent, black crystalline orb levitating above a simple wooden table. A few strange runes had been carved into the surface of the orb, and there was something suspended within it; a fly. It was suspended in flight, having buzzed to one side of the orb, and the surface of the orb there glowed with a blood-red light.
“A compass,” Bella answered.
“You’re going to have to explain that.”
“Look,” she prompted, gesturing at Goo. “Remember how the pieces of the Doppelganger were trapped in Goo?”
“Well, they’re still trying to get out,” she reasoned. Indeed, Goo’s surface tented a little near where the pieces were. “They want to return to the Doppelganger.”
“Right,” Gideon agreed.
“So if I transfer those pieces into this orb,” Bella continued, “…they’ll try to fly toward the Doppelganger. But the orb will trap them inside of it…and wherever the pieces touch the inner surface of the orb…” she added, pointing at the fly within, by the glowing red spot on the orb, “…it’ll show the direction they’re trying to go in.”
“Leading us right to the Doppelganger,” Gideon realized, his eyes widening.
“And Simon,” Bella concluded with a smile. Gideon stared at the painting, then at Bella, giving her a rueful smile.
“Now that’s a brilliant idea,” he admitted. “I’m mad I didn’t come up with it myself.”
“Well, I had a good teacher,” Bella pointed out. Gideon scoffed.
“I taught you how to paint, not how to be creative,” he retorted. “And the more creative we are…”
“…the more powerful our magic will be,” Bella finished. It was one of Gideon’s favorite sayings.
“You’re going to be powerful indeed,” Gideon predicted, eyeing the painting with newfound appreciation. “Take your time finishing it,” he added. “Do it once, do it right. Do it wrong…you’ll do it twice.”
“Ok,” Bella agreed.
He left her to it, and Bella returned her attention to the painting. The orb was simple enough as it was currently painted. But Gideon was right…she had to really think about what else she might want to do with it, lest she fall prey to the first law of painting: the Law of Unintended Consequences.
The crystal was capable of levitating, which would allow her to keep her hands free while using it. But she had to make it somehow know to stay near her. And she have a way to put things inside of it while not allowing them to escape…unless of course she wanted them to. It was also important to figure out what else she could do with the orb. After all, if there was one thing she’d learned from studying Gideon’s paintings, it was that everything he painted seemed simple…at first. Like his cane. It was virtually indestructible, its only other property being the ability to absorb the momentum of anything it struck, then discharge that force on the next strike.
But it practice, the cane had an enormous number of applications. Its ability to absorb momentum made it capable of neutralizing any attack, stopping it instantly. It could stop a falling boulder from crushing Gideon, or a horse galloping at him. And the ability to absorb any amount of force made it a devastating weapon. It could conceivably stop a massive falling meteorite dead in its tracks…and on the next strike, discharge the full force of the would-be impact.
The same with Myko, Gideon’s Familiar. The lovable silver wolf absorbed moonlight, and could use that power to moon-phase in any direction, dashing forward at incredible speed to attack enemies. And every time Myko moon-phased, he healed completely. This made him nearly invincible…and capable of withstanding any potential attack while moon-phasing, without fear of injury.
Such simple ideas, yet so powerful. It was why Gideon was widely considered the best Painter of his generation. And while Bella had been horrified that much of what Gideon painted involved deadly things like fireballs and other such weapons, facing the Collector had taught her a terrible lesson: that her enemies would use her kindness against her, and that if she didn’t defend herself and the people she loved, they could die. Like Piper, the sweet, roguish Actor who’d been so kind to her in the short time she’d known him…and who she still missed terribly.
After hiding from the Collector’s bounty hunters for ten years, and having Grandpa kidnapped and Piper and Kendra murdered, Bella refused to ever let anyone make her a victim again. Even if it meant having to kill someone.
She gazed at the painting for a moment longer, knowing that this would be the first of many paintings she would do today. Most she would never sign, and therefore never drawn out into the real world. But she would draw out the best of them. Her enemies were powerful – the Pentad, and Simon and Miss Savage. If she was going to protect her family from those who wished them harm, she would need all the help she could get.
Bella stepped out of the mouth of the Water Dragon cave, emerging into the mid-afternoon sun with Goo trailing right behind her. She squinted against the bright rays, using her hand as a visor to shield her eyes. The sky over Havenwood was a bright, cheery blue, a few puffy clouds visible high above. The rushing stream exiting the mouth of the cave to her right flowed forward, dropping off suddenly in a majestic waterfall. It was called the Everstream, and for good reason. It was a continuous stream of water from the heart of the long-dead Water Dragon itself. She followed its course to the edge of the drop-off, gazing downward.
Lake Fenestra lay over a thousand feet below, at the base of the mountain, its waters glittering in the sunlight. Beyond the shore of the lake was a path cutting through a verdant field, one that led to the mushroom forest that surrounded the mountain. And beyond this, the huge, serpentine body of the White Dragon could be seen.
The mountain seemed deserted, not a single soul visible below. But that was hardly surprising; Gideon had arranged for a meeting of the highest-ranked artists of Havenwood today, in an amphitheater in the castle. This included the many Painters the Collector had trapped inside paintings for his collection…Painters Gideon and Bella had saved before their battle with the Collector himself. She’d been invited to the meeting, but seeing as she hated crowds – and meetings, for that matter – she’d declined.
Once again, she had the awful feeling that she didn’t belong here. The same feeling she’d had back in school. It seemed that no matter where she went, it wasn’t the place for her. The only place she felt like she belonged was in Mom’s mansion, but it was a lonely existence…and after being cooped up in its darkness, she found herself yearning for the light.
Bella spotted movement to her left, and saw a huge wolf walking toward her. He was so big that his head was nearly level with hers, his fur a soft, fluffy silver. He reached her side, giving her a wet kiss on the cheek. Bella laughed, ruffling his fur affectionately.
“Hey Myko,” she greeted. “It never gets old, does it?” she asked, gazing at the wondrous scenery below. Myko wuffed, giving her another slobbery kiss.
They both looked down over the magnificent vista, until Bella felt a prodding sensation in her mind.
You should’ve gone to the meeting, a voice inside her head scolded.
It was Nemesis, Bella’s Familiar. An undead dragon she’d painted before the assault on the Collector’s castle, Nemesis was dark and fierce. And a bit of a…
Damn right I am, Nemesis interjected.
Bella glanced up, seeing a dark, bird-like shape in the sky high above her head. She could sense Nemesis’s position at any time…and vice versa. Their psychic bond was powerful, a bond only a Familiar and their Painter could have.
She sighed, watching as Nemesis descended toward them in a lazy spiral, eventually landing with a thump a few yards away from Myko. The undead dragon was covered in overlapping plates of black metallic armor, only her wings left bare. A suit of armor that Bella had painted for her Familiar after Nemesis had been decapitated by the Collector. The metal plates protected Nemesis from being beheaded, and even if she somehow was, the armored plates were magically attracted to one another, and would reconnect automatically if separated. And, since Nemesis was not alive, she couldn’t die…and bringing her bones back together allowed her to do the undead equivalent of healing.
Badass, right? Nemesis inquired.
Bella smiled. The dragon did look pretty badass. Nemesis spread her wings out wide for effect, then folded them on her back. Her body was about the same size as Bella’s, her long neck and tail making her quite a bit taller if she stood on her hind legs and stretched her neck out.
Meeting’s done, Nemesis notified her. They’re leaving the castle now. I’ll fly you up.
Bella hesitated, glancing at Myko, who was smiling at her in the adorable way that only canines could.
“Alright,” she agreed.
On second thought, never mind, Nemesis grumbled. Go walk Mutt and Snot.
“No, I’ll fly,” Bella insisted, ignoring the insult. Nemesis had nicknames for everyone…and they were seldom flattering. Still, Bella wanted to get into the habit of spending more time with Nemesis. The dragon was the exact opposite of Myko; about as cuddly as a porcupine, and with dark thoughts that were downright disturbing at times.
Other than that, Nemesis was alright. Sometimes.
But Nemesis ignored Bella, unfurling her wings and flying upward. Within moments, she was soaring high above Bella’s head, making her way quickly toward the castle. Bella sighed, watching her go…and resisting the urge to think evil thoughts.
Nemesis, on the other hand, made it obvious that she had no such reservations.
Bella glanced at Myko.
“You ever fight with Gideon?” she asked. Myko shook his head, and Bella sighed. “All right,” she muttered. “Let’s go.”
They turned left, Goo rolling behind them. More often than not, he took the shape of a sphere when he was traveling now, as it was a more efficient way to get from one place to another. They all followed the edge of the cliff to a cobblestone street that wound counterclockwise up the mountain. This was Main Street, the…well, main street of Havenwood. Its buildings were built along the street as it spiraled up the mountainside, with Castle Havenwood at the very top. They were close, the castle a mere fifty or so feet further up the mountain. Bella and Myko turned left again, following the street to the summit of Dragon’s Peak. It leveled out at the top, and in the distance, the great white castle was visible.
Castle Havenwood was like something out of a fairy tale, its pure white walls seeming to glow in the sunlight. Numerous tall, stately towers rose high into the sky, topped with fine silver pointed rooftops. Each tower had numerous windows, as well as window-shaped paintings decorating its surface. A sparkling moat surrounded the main body of the castle, with a curved bridge crossing over it.
But that wasn’t all.
For the castle had many additional wings to it, each connected by a fine white skybridge. Some were level with the main part of the castle, while others were located higher or lower, many resting on the massive colorful caps of huge mushrooms that grew on the mountain itself. One of these mushrooms had been toppled during the attack on Havenwood over a month ago, destroying an entire wing of the castle. The Dragonkind had erected huge stone columns to support a large stone platform, one that replaced the mushroom. And upon this, they were still busy recreating the demolished structure. The fact that each worker could fly certainly helped things along…and made working at such heights far less dangerous than it would’ve been for a human.
Bella and Myko crossed over the bridge spanning the moat, spotting a crowd of people exiting the double-doors of the castle entrance. Among them were Gideon and Grandpa, dressed in their finest formal attire. Grandpa wore a pure white suit, while Gideon wore a black suit with a dark purple tie. They looked like two sophisticated gentlemen…and most certainly were.
“How’d it go?” Bella asked as she reached the two.
“Well enough,” Gideon replied. Grandpa gave Gideon a sour look, and Gideon cleared his throat. “King Draco has agreed to continue to protect us and finish rebuilding the castle, and the Painters we saved from the Collector are busy working on paintings to bolster Havenwood’s defenses.”
“They’re more eager to help Havenwood than the original citizens are,” Grandpa grumbled.
“Too true,” Gideon replied with a sigh. “It seems Havenwood attracts artists looking to escape their destinies more so than those willing to face them.”
“In other words, cowards,” Grandpa told Bella, patting her on the shoulder. A few people in the crowd overheard him, shooting Grandpa some dirty looks. All of which Grandpa ignored.
“At least we came up with an evacuation plan,” Gideon noted. “In the event of an attack, all citizens are to go to the castle vault and step into the large mural there.”
“So what, we’re just going to sit here waiting to be attacked?” Bella asked, folding her arms over her chest. “We did that once, remember?”
“I know,” Gideon replied. “Which is why your new painting is so important. Is it finished?”
Bella nodded. She’d finished it right before coming outside. She reached into one of the thigh-holsters on her Painter’s uniform, pulling out a rolled-up canvas and handing it to him.
“Apertus,” he intoned…and the canvas unrolled itself. It was the painting of the crystal orb. He studied it for a while, then rolled it back up, handing it to Bella. “We should test it out,” he stated, his eyes going to Goo. “Ready?”
“Ready,” Bella agreed.
* * *
The process of extracting the Doppelganger’s fragments from Goo, then trapping them in the crystal orb, would have been complicated indeed if Bella hadn’t spent time solving the problem while painting it. She’d known that the fragments would zip through the air immediately after being released, so she had to make it so that Goo could extend a part of himself into the orb, then make the transfer…all the while allowing Goo to leave while keeping the fragments trapped inside. So she’d designed the orb accordingly.
“Open,” Bella commanded it as it floated before her, touching its surface with her fingertips. It flashed bright red once, and a small circular hole opened up on the top of the sphere. She directed Goo to extend a tendril that covered the hole, and Goo propelled the Doppelganger’s fragments to the end of the tendril, allowing them to escape into the orb. “Close,” Bella ordered, again with her fingertips on the orb…and the hole closed, sealing the fragments inside.
The fragments shot to one side of the black translucent sphere, and the wall of the sphere there glowed a bright red.
“It worked,” Gideon exclaimed, breaking out in a smile. He inclined his head at Bella. “Well done, Bella.”
“Well done indeed,” Grandpa agreed, wrapping an arm around her shoulders. He beamed at her proudly. “You’re turning into quite the Painter.”
“I had good teachers,” she pointed out. Grandpa pfffted.
“The student matters more than the teacher,” he retorted. “Take it from someone who’s taught for the better part of nine hundred years.”
“He’s not wrong,” Gideon agreed with a rueful smirk.
“So now we have a way to get to Simon,” Bella stated, placing the orb into the belly-painting of her uniform. “If we go on the attack, we can stop him before he gets a chance to build an arsenal of paintings.”
“True, but we have Miss Savage to consider,” Gideon reminded her. “We shouldn’t rush into a fight until we find out what she’s capable of.”
“How do we do that?” Bella asked.
“Indeed,” Grandpa piped in. “I’ve never heard of a Musician with her capabilities…and I’m old.”
“True,” Gideon conceded. “But I know of someone who might,” he added. “Someone even older than you.”
“Ahhh,” Grandpa murmured, nodding to himself.
“Who?” Bella asked.
“The same person who helped us print Thaddeus’s book,” Gideon answered. “The president of the Guild of the Golden Coin herself.”
Bella just stared at him uncomprehendingly.
“Petrusa,” Gideon clarified. Bella’s eyebrows furrowed.
“The one Mom used to work for?” she asked.
“That’s right,” Gideon confirmed.
“How did the meeting with Petrusa go?” Grandpa inquired. Gideon grimaced.
“As well as could be expected,” he answered. “She did have one condition for helping us,” he added. “She requested that I bring Bella to the Twin Spires.”
“The Twin Spires? Why?” Grandpa blurted out, seeming rather alarmed suddenly.
“To show her the Guild of the Golden Coin,” Gideon answered. “And introduce her to her mother’s…profession.”
Grandpa’s eyes widened, the blood draining from his face.
“No,” he blurted out. “Tell me you didn’t…”
“I didn’t have much of a choice, did I?” Gideon interjected.
“Relax,” Gideon soothed. “Petrusa only required that Bella be shown her mother’s work, and be allowed to make her own decision.”
Bella put her hands on her hips, glaring at the two.
“What’s this all about?” she demanded.
Both men turned to her, looking terribly guilty.
“Um,” Grandpa began.
“Well…” Gideon stammered.
“Spit it out,” Bella ordered. “We agreed that we wouldn’t keep secrets from each other anymore, remember?”
Both men grimaced, then nodded.
“Very well,” Gideon decided. “Remember how we told you your mother was a member of the Guild of the Golden Coin?” he asked.
“Well, Petrusa is the founder and president of the guild,” Gideon explained. “But she’s also the one who…recruited your mother into another guild of sorts.”
“You mean the Necromancers?” Bella asked. The Collector had revealed that her mother was a Necromancer, whatever that meant.
“Yes,” Gideon confirmed. “Petrusa is the leader of the Necromancers…a group that calls themselves the Dark Circle. Your mother was a member.”
“So what’s a Necromancer?” Bella asked. She assumed it had something to do with death, given her mother’s gruesome paintings. She’d always wondered why she’d been obsessed with dark themes, and seeing her mother’s work had given her the answer.
“A Necromancer is an artist that has earned the right to travel to and from the Plane of Death,” Gideon revealed. “They practice the dark arts.”
“The dark arts?” Bella asked.
“Things associated with the Plane of Death,” Gideon clarified. “Ghosts, specters, zombies, animated skeletons…that sort of thing.”
“And curses,” Grandpa piped in. “Like the one your mother’s amulet put on the Collector.”
Bella looked down at her own chest, withdrawing the amulet she always wore around her neck. It was a golden amulet with a heart-shaped ruby in the center, one that pulsed with a dull red light. Whereas once it had been cracked, it was now whole, apparently repaired by the Collector’s life force it’d drained.
Even in death, her mother had protected her…and avenged her own murder to boot.
“So Petrusa wants you to take me to the guild?” Bella asked. The idea brought a sudden burst of excitement; to go where her mother had gone, to see what Mom had seen! And it would be a chance to get out of Havenwood for a while.
“That’s right,” Gideon confirmed.
“But what about finding Simon and Miss Savage?” she pressed.
“Well, that’s my point,” Gideon stated. “If anyone would know about Miss Savage, it would be Petrusa. She knows more about what goes on in this world than perhaps anyone else alive.”
“He’s right,” Grandpa agreed. “But knowing Petrusa, that information is going to cost us.”
“And not knowing it may cost us more,” Gideon argued. “In any case, Petrusa ordered that I bring Bella to the guild after dealing with the Collector. I’m obligated to go…and while we’re there, I can at least see what price she offers.”
Grandpa sighed, his shoulders slumping.
“All right,” he agreed. “But before you go, I have a favor to ask you.”
“I’m sick and tired of being old,” Grandpa declared, eyeing Gideon with a twinkle in his eye. “I could use a fresh coat of paint.”
“So could I, old friend,” he replied. “Consider it done.”
That afternoon and evening, Bella and Gideon prepared for their long journey to the Twin Spires. Bella ensured that there was plenty of food and drink – or rather, paintings of each – in Gideon’s Conclave. Then she retrieved Sleep Terror, her magical whip made of human vertebrae. Anything it struck would be put to sleep instantly…and suffer horrifying nightmares. She also put Goo in a painting, and Gideon did the same with Myko. As fugitives wanted by the Pentad, they couldn’t afford to be spotted with the wolf. Myko was famous, by virtue of being Gideon’s Familiar, and therefore instantly recognizable by the public.
To that end, Gideon had stepped into one of Bella’s canvases, requesting that she disguise him. She’d given him long brown hair, a smooth-shaven face, and blue eyes instead of green. And she’d given him a bit of a tan, which would help prevent him from getting sunburned during their trip. He’d been quite pleased with the result, much to her relief. Probably because she’d made him look stunningly handsome.
Bella, of course, didn’t need a disguise. She was a nobody, after all; few people even knew she existed, much less that she was Gideon and Lucia’s daughter. But seeing as she didn’t have a license to paint, she wore her cloak to cover her Painter’s uniform.
Grandpa had been pleased with his own transformation. Gideon had painted him into a moderately younger version of himself, from seventy-ish to late forty-ish. His hair was now mostly black with a little gray, his once-wrinkled face quite smooth. He stood quite a bit straighter, his back no longer bent with age. But he still looked much the same, and still wore his gold-rimmed glasses. And his smile, and his voice, were Grandpa’s.
“This is going to take some getting used to,” Bella confessed to Grandpa as she set the last of the food-related paintings against the wall of Gideon’s studio in his Conclave. Grandpa stood at the doorway, smiling at her.
“It will be for me too,” he confessed, moving his shoulders in circles. “My joints don’t hurt anymore,” he added. “Let me tell you, the ‘Golden Years’ are a lie. More like the ‘Rust and Tarnish’ years if you ask me.”
“You look good,” she admitted.
“I feel good,” he agreed. “I haven’t been that old in a long, long time,” he mused. Then he frowned. “Actually, I’m not sure if I’ve ever let myself get that old.”
“It’s going to take some time to get used to,” Bella admitted.
“I look forward to spending it with you,” he replied with a smile. “After your adventure, of course.”
“Wait, you’re not coming with us?” Bella asked.
“No,” Grandpa answered.
“Why not?” she pressed.
“This trip will be a good way for you and Gideon to get to know each other better,” Grandpa reasoned. “I’m afraid I’d only get in the way of that.”
“You wouldn’t, Grandpa.”
“I’ll see you when you get back,” he promised. Which meant that his mind was made up. Stubbornness was a family trait, unfortunately. Bella had no choice but to accept his decision.
“What do you know about this Petrusa?” she asked. Grandpa grimaced, smoothing imaginary wrinkles from his suit.
“More than I care to,” he answered. “She’s…not the type of person I ever wanted your mother to associate with.”
Bella arched an eyebrow at him.
“What type of person is she?”
“A business person,” Grandpa answered with a sour look. “To them, everything is…transactional. Not a good way to live if you ask me.”
“Don’t let me influence you too much,” Grandpa counseled. “I think it’s best that you form your own opinion.”
“I tried to stop your mother from joining with her,” Grandpa replied, lowering his gaze. “I tried so very hard. And I still wonder if, by doing so, I drove her right into Petrusa’s arms.” He shook his head. “Parents desperately want to write their children’s’ stories,” he mused. “But for better or worse, you have to write your story all by yourself.”
“Or paint it,” Bella quipped with a little smile. He didn’t smile back, instead lifting his gaze to meet hers.
“I just don’t want to make the same mistake with you,” he confessed.
“Grandpa, you won’t,” Bella promised. He looked so miserable suddenly that she walked up to him, giving him a hug. “If you don’t want me to see her, I won’t.”
“I don’t think you have a choice in whether or not you meet her,” he cautioned. “But what you do afterward is your choice.” He pulled away a little, putting his hands on her shoulders and staring at her intently over his glasses. “Just remember that your life is no one’s story but your own.”
“I suppose this is goodbye then,” Grandpa said. He leaned in to give her another hug, squeezing her tight. “I love you sweetheart.”
“I love you too,” Bella replied. She kissed him tenderly on the cheek, then disengaged. “See you soon.”
“I’ll spend every day hoping it’s the day you return,” Grandpa vowed, his eyes growing moist. Bella blinked back sudden tears of her own, wiping her eyes with the back of her sleeve. Grandpa blew one last kiss, then left the studio…leaving Bella to her work.
* * *
At length the preparations for the upcoming journey were complete, and Bella and Gideon left their home within the mountain, emerging into the light of the late-morning sun. They hiked down Dragon’s Peak, following the cobblestone path around Lake Fenestra at the foot of the mountain, then taking it through the mushroom forest toward the great dragon encircling the kingdom. Bella had tried to convince Nemesis to go into a painting for the trip, seeing as she was an unlicensed Familiar, but the surly dragon had refused, deciding to fly high overhead instead. This was just as well, as Nemesis could serve as a lookout.
After walking past the dragon circle – white and good – the two left the protection of Havenwood.
It was at that point that Gideon produced a rolled-up canvas, unrolling it to reveal a painting of two horses. The same horses, Bella realized, that they’d gotten from General Craven’s military camp about two months ago.
“Told you they’d come in handy,” Bella quipped as Gideon drew them both out of the painting. He boosted her up into the saddle of her horse, then hopped onto his with one smooth motion.
“The Twin Spires is due west,” he stated. “We’ll head just north of the Forest of Giants, then continue through the Karanas to the city itself.”
“How long will it take?” Bella asked.
“It took me the better part of a week the last time,” Gideon answered. He kicked his heels into his horse’s flanks, and it trotted forward. Bella did the same, heading across the flat grassy plain toward the forest ahead. In the distance, she saw a large hill. The same one they’d hiked over after escaping Blackthorne.
Sure you don’t want to fly?
Bella glanced up, seeing a tiny shadow soaring high above them.
You can’t fly both of us, Bella pointed out. She felt Nemesis shrug, then watched as her Familiar soared ahead of them. She spotted Gideon eyeing her.
“Lost you for a bit,” he noted. “Talking with Nemesis?”
“How’s it going between you two?” he asked. Bella shrugged. “Give it time,” he counseled. “Our Familiars are like having children.”
“We create them, but they have a mind – and a personality – of their own,” he answered. “And it can be maddening sometimes.”
“That’s for sure,” Bella grumbled.
“Your mother said the same thing about you, actually,” Gideon confessed. Bella raised an eyebrow at him. “You were a…willful child,” he explained. “A stubborn little spitfire, she called you. Kind, generally happy…but terribly stubborn.”
“Did I get that from Mom?” she asked. Gideon gave her a look that made it all-too-clear what the answer was. “How did you guys meet?” Bella pressed.
“Well, when she was born, actually,” Gideon replied. Bella made a face, and Gideon ignored her. “I was there when Thaddeus’s wife had her. Thaddeus and I had been best friends for quite some time by that point, and he insisted that I be in the room when she was brought into this world.”
“So you knew Mom her whole life?”
“No,” Gideon answered. “I continued bounty-hunting, and Thaddeus went back to teaching and writing in the capitol. The next time I saw your mother, she was thirteen. She’d been painting on a temporary license since she was seven, and Thaddeus requested that I train her after she got her apprentice license at 13.”
“Like you’re training me.”
“Not really,” Gideon countered. “You’re not difficult at all.”
Bella broke out into a smile.
“I trained her until she was eighteen, after which she was supposed to apply for a Patron of the Arts,” Gideon continued. “A wealthy member of the aristocracy, typically,” he clarified. “No Painter can paint without a license and a Patron. And every painting must be requested by the Patron, approved by the High Councilor, and signed before a government official called a Witness of the Seal.”
“Sounds complicated,” Bella muttered.
“Oh it is,” Gideon confirmed. “The magical arts are highly regulated throughout most of the world, the Pentad included. Havenwood is a rare exception…as was the Collector.”
“So if I just wanted to paint, and painted whatever I wanted, I’d be arrested?”
“And have your hands cut off at best,” Gideon agreed. “More likely than not, you’d be hanged.”
“Seems a little extreme.”
“The Pentad has to make an example of those who do art without a license,” Gideon explained. “Rogue Painters and Writers are dangerous…even Actors can be deadly.”
Bella’s eyebrows rose.
“How so?” she asked.
“Imagine what would happen if an Actor studied a high-ranking government official, then became them?”
“Ohhh,” Bella murmured. “They could control the government from the inside!”
“Right,” Gideon replied. “And a powerful Writer like Thaddeus could pen vast armies and impenetrable castles and dungeons.”
“So execution isn’t so extreme when you think about it,” Gideon concluded.
They fell into silence then, and Bella chewed on this for a while. Eventually they reached the foot of the hill, climbing up the gentle slope until they reached the top, then going downhill again. They continued through the forest beyond for a few hours, until Gideon stopped at a small clearing, dismounting nimbly from his horse.
“Time to paint,” he prompted, tying the horses to a nearby tree. Then he reached into his cloak, pulling out the black disc to his Conclave and setting it on the ground. “Anulus,” he intoned, and the disc expanded, forming a black hole. Gideon lowered himself into it, and Bella did as well.
She found herself in a cozy room, with a large bookshelf built into the wall on her right and a big bed to her left. Gideon pulled a few books from the shelf, and it spun ninety degrees, revealing a walk-in closet beyond. At the end of the closet was the door to Gideon’s studio.
Bella had been in the Conclave many times, but this time she found herself studying it with a critical eye.
“So you just painted this house and the lake, and painted the disc to go to it?” she asked as she followed Gideon up to one of two easels in the room.
“There’s a bit more to it than that, but yes, that’s the idea,” he confirmed. He raised an eyebrow then. “What are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking I’m all grown up,” she replied. “Isn’t it about time I had my own room?”
“Mostly grown up,” Gideon corrected. “You’re still sixteen.”
“Is that a ‘no?’” she pressed, putting a hand on her hip.
“No,” he replied. “It’s not a no,” he clarified quickly. “Every Painter has a Conclave, so it makes sense that you should too. You’re welcome to paint it, but take your time. And keep in mind that you don’t have to make it accessible with a disc like I do,” he added. “There are many things a Conclave can be…and many ways to access one.”
“Okay,” Bella agreed. “I’ll think about it for a while.”
“In the meantime, we should concentrate on building up your arsenal,” Gideon stated. “Weapons, defensive items, and so on. We’ll need every advantage we can get against Miss Savage’s power…and Simon’s. I guarantee you he’s building his arsenal as we speak.”
“I know how you feel about making lethal paintings,” Gideon continued, “…but…”
“It’s okay,” Bella interjected. She remembered the battle with the Collector and Miss Savage. How the Collector had cut Myko in half, decapitated Nemesis, and nearly killed Gideon. And how Piper and Kendra had died. “I let Simon take advantage of my kindness once,” she continued. “I won’t do it again.” She turned to the easel before her, eyeing the fresh canvas there. “If he threatens me or my family again, I’ll do whatever it takes to make him regret it.”